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Red List: MI5’s Culture War

A new book shows the extent to which MI5 and Special Branch gathered information on thousands of individuals who never remotely posed a threat to Britain’s security. In so doing, they were distracted from addressing the real threats to the public.

Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome was monitored by MI5. (Photo: Howard Coster / National Portrait Gallery)

 

  • MI5 collected information on authors, historians, actors, composers, academics and activists throughout the Cold War
  • Special Branch told MI5 that author Doris Lessing’s flat was “frequently visited by persons of various nationality” and was being used “for immoral purposes.”
  • Blacklisting of individuals was carried out with the help of the Post Office, BBC and British Council.
  • By sweeping up so many people considered ‘subversive’, MI5 was slower to recognise security threats in Northern Ireland and from Islamist extremists.

The greatest challenge, the most important task, facing security and intelligence agencies should be to identify threats to the public from genuinely hostile forces, ranging from state agencies to violent individuals motivated by extreme ideologies.

Their biggest temptation is to use the special resources and laws – the privileges – at their disposal to amass as much information as possible on individuals, just in case, to play it safe.

That doesn’t make the country safe of course, quite the opposite. While they relax in the assumption they are covering every possible threat, the truly dangerous individual slips under the net.

British intelligence officers say the fight against ‘terrorism’ is getting increasingly difficult, comparing it to finding a needle in a haystack. The trouble is the agencies are building more and more haystacks.

The extent to which the Security Service, MI5, indulged in gathering information on individuals who never remotely posed a threat to Britain’s security is perfectly illustrated in Red List: MI5 and British Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century.

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